Perfect mix of comedy and pathos

2010-05-17 00:00

THERE are not many things I miss about living in the UK — but one thing I did enjoy was being able to watch theatre in London’s West End. So it’s been a real joy being able to see filmed productions of Phedré, All’s Well That End Well and Nation over the past few months.

The latest offering in the National Theatre NT Live series is the critically acclaimed Alan Bennett play The Habit of Art, a truly stunning production that is both poignant and extremely funny. One word of warning, don’t see it if you’re a bit prudish.

Bennett’s play is set in one of the rehearsal rooms of the National Theatre where the cast of a play called Caliban’s Day is busy rehearsing. The latter play has been inspired by the poet W.H. Auden’s The Sea and The Mirror, and tells the story of a fictional meeting between Auden and his one-time friend and protégé, the composer Benjamin Britten.

Auden, played by the wonderful Richard Griffiths (The History Boys and the Harry Potter films), is living in semi-retirement in Oxford and is a man of disgusting personal habits — his home is filthy and he likes to pee in the basin. Into this existence steps Humphrey Carpenter (Adrian Scarborough), a BBC journalist who has come to interview him. Auden initially mistakes him for a rent boy, but the crusty old poet agrees to chat to him about his life and work.

Later in the play, Auden and Britten (Alex Jennings) meet for the first time in 25 years to discuss Britten’s plans to stage an opera version of Death in Venice. In temperament, these two men couldn’t be more different — Auden believes in sexual freedom and is something of a bully, whereas Britten is a repressed model of restraint.

This story is, however, only part of what the audience sees. The Habit of Art is, after all, a play within a play and Griffiths shows his talents by making Fitz (the actor playing Auden) tetchy and at times petulant. He wants to get rehearsal over and done with so he can do a voice-over for the British supermarket chain Tesco.

There is also a wonderful performance from Frances de la Tour as Kay, the stage manager who has to manage and soothe fragile egos and keep the rehearsal going despite the director being away and some of her cast appearing in another show.

The Habit of Art is theatre out of the top drawer, and that rare, perfect mix of comedy and pathos. I loved every minute of it and am sure you will too.

**** Estelle Sinkins

• The Habit of Art can be seen at Cinema Nouveau Gateway on May 19 and 22.

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